The Illinois Club (1927)
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For the past 120 years, the Original Illinois Club has given a Carnival ball in New Orleans for the purpose of presenting young women of color to society as debutant queens and court maids. This practice began in 1895, and continued every year except at times of national and local emergencies.
The photo shown above was taken on March 2, 1927 at the spacious Bethlehem Temple on Dumaine Street where society folks from many sections of the city mingled with other notables from New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, and various other cities.
Mr. Raoul J. Llopis, president, had the pleasure of introducing the charming young ladies (shown above) to all the other guests present. The lovely and gracious queen of 1927 was Miss Althea Dumas. Her maids were presented in the following order; but, unfortunately, only first initials were provided: Misses F. Jones, E. Ford, M. Raymond, C. E. Crocker, A. Prudhomme, E. A. Foster, I. Pernell, L. Saucier, D. Todd, G. J. Evans, A. R. Gardy, T. Smith, V. Allen, E. Johnson, L. Betts, A. Decoudreaux, V. Baranco, J.E. Davis, and L. D. Verges.
The history of the club goes back to 1894 when Wiley J. Knight, a native of Tennessee and a brief resident of Chicago, moved to New Orleans. Tradition has it that the name was the Illinois Club because so many members were Pullman porters on the Illinois Central Railroad, a well-respected job at the turn of the century. No one knows if this is exactly the truth or if Wesley Knight chose the name because he had lived in Chicago.
Out of his desire to teach dancing and pass on traditional social customs, Mr. Knight opened his own dance studio in uptown New Orleans on Cadiz near Camp Street. The sons and daughters of many families attended and out of his classes the Illinois Club was formed in 1895.
The Louisiana Weekly’s article from 1927, describing the ball shown above, wrote of the gorgeously decorated hall of majestic palms as well as the white canopy erected from the street to the entrance. There was a white runner canvas from the entrance up both flights of stairs and multi-colored lights which added to the colorful spectacle. Club members wore pink or pale blue satin mantles on which were embroidered the letter “I.” Over their left shoulders hung a large replica of a souvenir saxophone. Guests danced to the music of Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Band and fashionable ladies, dressed in colorful costumes in pastel shades and tints, added to the beautiful scenery and even charmed the eye of the beholder.
In two interviews conducted in 1945 & 1950, Mr. Knight spoke of the early years of the Illinois Club. He stated that their first ball was held at Globe Hall on St. Peter and Marais Streets. Balls began at 10 pm due to the fact that some of their members were butlers and maids and had to complete jobs at their place of employment. It was not until the 1920s that the club became more exclusive. During this time people of color began entering the business world and, as professionals, they became interested in joining the club. He went on to say that women were members for about 10 years until a male president made it into a men’s club. Today, wives participate but the men traditionally develop the themes and make all decisions relating to costumes and decorations.
Miss Doris Gaynell Taylor – Queen of Original Illinois Ball (1936)
Traditionally, the queen and her court are chosen by debutant committees who interview the girls whose names are put up by members and their families. The royalty is chosen by seniority in the club, with members’ daughters getting 1st choice, relatives of members receiving 2nd choice, and friends of longtime members coming next.
By 1927, a rift in the Illinois Club caused younger members to splinter off and form a new organization. They named it the Young Men Illinois Club, Inc. The old-timers remained in the Illinois Club but soon started calling themselves the Original Illinois Club instead of just the Illinois Club. The name, however, does not necessarily reflect the membership today.
The traditions of the past still continue today. Debutantes must dress in beautiful white gowns for the ball with headpieces containing red, orange, black, and yellow feathers. Formal teas are held wherein all ladies must wear a suit, white gloves and a hat. Proper table manners are taught and young ladies must learn to curtsy and walk properly. Above all, debutantes must learn the steps to the Chicago Glide, the official waltz of the club which was written around the same time as the founding of the organization.
Wiley Knight, who is often referred to as the “Father of Negro Society in New Orleans” passed away August 7, 1953. His services were held at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church and interment in Carrollton Cemetery. He believed that by bringing girls out at their best in society it added purpose to their womanhood. He wanted young women of color, through his organization, to develop a sense of worth, become better educated and focus on their goals and accomplishments in society. For these reasons, his organization continues today.
Sources: The Louisiana Weekly, 05 March 1927 p. 5 and 19 March 1927 p. 5; Times- Picayune, 07 February 1988 p. 49; www:livingneworleans.com (interview with Phoebe Ferguson) “Screen Shots” 10 November 2008 by Lisa M. Daliet;
A special thank you goes to Sandra Colomb for providing me with the beautiful black & white photo shown above.
Lolita V. Cherrie